The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

Well, after watching “The Killing,” it’s become official: just about the last shred of originality that I once thought that Quentin Tarantino had has been swept away.  Obviously “Kill Bill” is a straight-up homage and mish-mash of sword play, western, and any other B-genre the man could think of, but prior to that, just about every aspect of QT’s first three films came straight out of “The Killing.” The heist-gone-bad premise?  “Reservoir Dogs.”  Multi-thread and interconnected character story structure with a disjointed time structure?  “Pulp Fiction.”  Showing a moment in time many times over, from separate points of view?  “Jackie Brown.”  Hell, even going away from Tarantino, this movie is Ocean’s Eleven without the forced humor and campiness.  Those are all very good movies, but let’s face facts, they owe their very existence to what in the end is probably the superior “The Killing.”

But enough about that eternal copycat QT, let’s talk about the master behind “The Killing” 🙂 .  This was Kubrick’s first studio-funded film, and in a number of ways it shows.  The budget was absolutely miniscule, and you can tell.  Other than a few cheap-looking apartment sets and the airport finale, the entire movie basically takes place at a racetrack.  The two most prominent “stars” were probably Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jr., they of the infinite supporting roles.  That booming, matter-of-fact narration giving us the exact time and place of just about every scene feels like something a rookie filmmaker would do, even though it’s pretty much vital to follow the otherwise impossible to follow plot (though Kubrick supposedly hated the narration but put it in at the studio’s insistence…it gave the movie a bit of a student filmmaker feel, and it shows that Kubrick didn’t yet have the clout he’d have in years to come, but at least in his youth he had the right idea 🙂 ).  In theory this is a very simple movie involving a scheme by an ex-con and various racetrack employees to rob the place clean, but what we end up with is probably one of the most labyrinthine plots Kubrick ever filmed.  Even putting aside the disjointed timeline that puts a very interesting spin on the heist itself, it’s labyrinthine because we see the entire process before, during, and after the job, and even more importantly, everyone involved…and not just related to the heist, either, but every character’s whole stories and foibles.  We see Sterling Hayden juggling his relationship with his girlfriend and managing the job.  We see the bartender and his sick wife.  We see the chess pro and his knack for brawling.  We see the sharpshooter strike up an unwanted relationship with the man at the parking lot gate.  We see the ticket man wondering whether this is all worth it, all while dealing with his scheming wife, who in turn is dealing with her scheming boyfriend.  It’s quite a miracle that there’s not a bad performance among this collective of character actors, so that each of these very different but completely interrelated characters are absolutely unique.  And extra kudos must be given to Sterling Hayden for holding all of those characters together and standing tall as the ringleader: so sure of what’s going on and so unflappable in making sure things go down without a hitch, only showing the slightest hint of vulnerability at the very end, when things start to go very wrong.  The more roles I see of Sterling Hayden’s, the more I’m convinced that he was one the great underrated actors of all-time.

Each of these plot and character threads would make for an interesting, watchable story, and put together, you’d think it would make for a hell of a miniseries.  But this, shockingly, is just a 90 minute movie.  For such a complex and maze-like story with a completely disjointed timeline, it’s stunning how economical Kubrick is in depicting it (this is a masterwork of economic storytelling the way “2001” is a masterwork of non-economic storytelling 😛 ).  And the movie’s not just economically paced, but has some pretty expert style.  Some of those scenes of plotting amongst the plotters define film noir at its finest, with the shadows and the cigarette smoke and all that goodness.  There’s a moment I was just fascinated by, where one of the men (sadly I can’t remember who) leans his chair back, to the point that his face is completely obscured in shadow.  Now there’s something you wouldn’t even see in the best classic noirs, and it’s a sign of Kubrick’s adventurousness and his early desire to go outside the norm in depicting the duality of man.  And obviously Kubrick’s patented free-floating camera and limited cuts make an early appearance in this early film.

Should “The Killing” be considered among Kubrick’s “best” films, right alongside “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “2001”?  Probably not.  This is a very raw film by a raw and young filmmaker, and the flaws are there.  Those three later films of his that I mentioned are all masterpieces and very near-perfect representatives of their respective genres.  “The Killing” is not.  But what it is is a fascinating exercise in telling a complex story with a million things going on at once, as simply as possible and in a way that’s influenced so many films and filmmakers for years afterwards.  And the way young Kubrick tells that story, especially style-wise, shows you signs of the master filmmaker to come.

9/10

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